The third time I floated the Rio Grande River through Boquillas Canyon, things went smoother than they had on the first two. That simple fact was especially good since it was my first time leading a group into the backcountry. On that trip, our group of twelve included ten teenage boys, and we were paddling two per aluminum canoe. We made the 33-mile excursion down the river on the east side of Big Bend National Park over three days, with two nights spent camping out along the way. The trip was a big success. Many in the group experienced wild and scenic backcountry for the first time, there were only a couple of minor technical canoeing problems, and everyone learned that all drinking water doesn’t come out of faucets. Other than dealing with a certain amount of teenager chaos, I mostly just went with the flow, gazed out at the mighty Sierra del Carmen mountains rising off to the southeast, and pondered the majesty and complexities of the massive cliff walls surrounding us.
Things weren’t that way on my first two trips. It wasn’t that the river, spectacular canyon walls, and the looming bluish massif of the Sierra del Carmen weren’t there; it’s just that there’d been other considerations those times.
I went there the first time with Coulter, a guy that I’d gone to junior high and high school with, just after our freshman years in college. We put in our “cost less than $100” inflatable rubber raft at Rio Grande Village, a campground and store in the National Park and located just upstream from the canyon. Leading up to the trip, we wasted little time reading guidebooks. And we weren’t concerned with the fact that modern civilization pretty much ended once we entered the canyon. Regardless of the facts, we were confident our great rafting adventure was meticulously well planned. While that wasn’t the case, thankfully, we were prepared for uncertainty, which ended up being our saving grace.
There were a couple of things that we did know about our river trip as we pushed the raft off from the riverbank into the lazy current. We knew for a fact that we were headed into one of the three big canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas) along the Big Bend section of the Rio Grande. And we were sure there were no big rapids of concern. The latter was significant since neither of us had any real whitewater paddling experience.
Once out in the water, the current soon grabbed us and swept us past the point of no return. It was a mysterious and magical realm that we entered, as giant rocks and cliffs suddenly rose both to our right and left. At that point, we realized that there was no more Mexico or USA, and there were also no National Park rangers, no parents, and no one to ask. Suddenly, there was only the water, over 100 miles of wild river, and mountains without people in our new world.
We started in the afternoon and planned to go only a couple of hours into the canyon before finding a place to pitch our tent for the first night. We somehow knew enough to paddle more or less together and had placed our fully-loaded frame backpacks in the middle of the boat. We were amazed by how much weight the raft held. And initially, at least, were pleased by how well it was serving its purpose- and for less than $100.
We had to do little in the way of paddling to move as fast as we dared. We mostly kept the front of the raft pointed downstream and let the river do the rest. But at about 5:00 pm, the south breeze, which had mainly been at our backs, began to shift. It started coming at us more from the east (or straight ahead) and changed from a gentle breeze into a stiff one. Within minutes, the wind change became profound, and we were ultimately hit head-on by a brutal and sand-filled gale that almost completely stopped our forward progress.
We both dug our paddles deeply into the water and pulled for all we were worth in a drastic attempt to keep moving forward. After paddling for five minutes, we gauged our progress relative to an old tree trunk over on the shore and noted that at least we hadn’t been blown upstream. If only we had a canoe, I thought, maybe we’d be going downstream.
By a stroke of luck, a large sand bar created the US side of the river right where we were. Amid the paddling struggle, we glanced over and saw some camping possibilities. Before stopping for the night, we had planned to go further and figured we’d find a pleasant, grass-covered flat spot for pitching our dome tent. But at that moment, we opted to go for whatever we could get and could see that our options were neither flat nor grassy.
Thankfully, we were close to the shore, and after a few minutes of complex paddling, we got ourselves close enough to the riverbank for Coulter to jump out and drag us ashore. He held onto the bow-line and pulled the whole boat rig, with me attached, ashore. Our first instinct was to use the raft as a combination of windbreak and shelter. But we soon realized that it caught too much wind for that and focused our energy on the need to get it securely anchored to the ground just to keep it from blowing away. I will say that losing your boat out where we were would suck, although we didn’t spend much time thinking about that at the time.
After some struggle, we were finally able to tie the raft down to the same big log we’d used to assess our progress. Once that was done, we began looking for a good place to set up the tent. We recognized that we were becoming overwhelmed by the wind and needed to get out of it quickly, so we became ever less picky regarding where to do it. We located a spot that was more or less level, although not particularly protected, pulled the 3-person tent out, and went about the process of fighting the wind to put it up.
What should’ve taken only a few minutes took considerably more. But we eventually did get it set up and almost miraculously with the door facing away from the wind. As soon as it was ready to go, we climbed in and zipped ourselves inside. Even though we could hear the wind pounding outside, it was calm and without any blowing sand inside, and so, for that moment, all was good.
Eventually, the gale subsided to the point where we could go outside and cook supper. But we didn’t and stayed in the tent and opted for the no-cook meal we’d brought along for emergency use instead. As it turns out, a strong wind was not something we’d even thought about in our pre-trip planning. And so, while eating a mix of crackers, cheese, and Oreos, we speculated about what we would do about suppers in the future if it were blowing like that.
After the wind incident, the rest of the trip went flawlessly. A couple of days later, we pulled the raft up onto the bank, just under the bridge at La Linda, and shuttled from there back into the park to Rio Grande Village and my pickup. We camped there in the campground for a few days and ended our trip with a day float through the middle of the three Big Bend canyons, Mariscal. Interestingly, on that trip, we performed something of a river rescue. A group of four college guys that we’d met in the campground decided to float through it as well but on a sailboat bottom. After a short distance, they ended up having an issue negotiating the technical river feature known as the “Tight Squeeze.” They were just ahead of us, but we caught up just as they took an unfortunate path over the notorious big rock that creates the feature. Their route took them right over the top of the rock, which caused them to launch from their plank out into the water. Within only moments, we were able to pull all of them out of the river and hauled them to the relative safety of the shore. Afterward, as the two of us drifted back out into the current, we could hear them talking about what they were going to do the next time. That was the last venture for our “under $100 raft.” But overall, we were pleased by how well it had performed during its short but eventful life.
So, that brings us to the next trip, which was my second. Several years after the wind trip and a few months before my first trip as a group leader, I did it with an old friend, whom I’ll call Busby. We planned to do it as a dress rehearsal for the trip we’d lead the teenagers on later that year. Once again, it would’ve made good sense to have many of the trip plans worked out before doing the exploratory excursion. But since it was supposed to be a planning trip, to start with, we figured we could deal with those details “in process.” We were at least doing it in the late spring when the water and weather were relatively warm. And, this time, we had a bombproof aluminum canoe with us that didn’t leak all that much, and I was already familiar with where our starting point was. Other details, such as those related to the required shuttle back to our vehicle from the take-out point, were a bit ambiguous.
Initially, things went like clockwork. Just as scheduled, we made the six-hour drive to the park and our put-in location at Rio Grande Village, as planned. We arrived in the late afternoon and had plenty of time to set up our tent in the campground and have supper before dark. The following morning, we were fully energized and eager to get going when we carried the canoe over to the water’s edge. With the boat in a shallow and calm backwater, we loaded our packs into the middle and then climbed in. We just sat on the bow and stern seats, given the relatively calm nature of the water, and then eased out into the current.
The first few miles from Rio Grande Village, past Boquillas Crossing, and into the canyon are mellow. The terrain is relatively flat, with only the distant mountains creating relief. The warm sun, predictable flow, and the fact that I’d done it before began conspiring early on to relax me. As we entered the canyon, the cliff walls rose out of the surrounding terrain sporadically at first. But they soon virtually engulfed the river. I put my paddle down and laid back on the gunnel to better take it all in. Studying the seemingly perfectly orchestrated chaos of the rock overwhelmed my senses. River Cane grew in scattered and unlikely spots in the rocks where cracks and creases had been filled with bits of sand and dirt and seemed to spring up wherever the river made a turn. Two Crows soared near the top of the massive rock wall, which in places rose directly out of the water and seemed to extend for a considerable distance up into the sky. With the warm sun conspiring with the calm water, I decided to close my eyes for just a moment and take a quick nap. That, it turns out, was a poor decision.
While I’d been conscious and controlling my end of the boat, everything had gone well. But things changed once I drifted off into relaxed slumber. Bad timing, I suppose. Something, perhaps a new sound, sudden shift, or dramatic change in speed, woke me abruptly and sent me springing into action, although a bit behind the curve. Busby was in the bow and doing all he could to keep us pointed downstream as we entered a section of somewhat swifter water. He was struggling to keep us from turning broadside into the current, which, as I was aware, often leads a canoe to swamp or turn over.
I grabbed for my paddle, but a couple of miscues in my attempts to do so delayed my action. Within a few seconds, I did get ahold of my paddle, slid back down onto the seat, and was finally able to get the paddle blade into the water. While all of that was happening, the canoe initiated an abrupt left turn perpendicularly into the current. The upriver side of the canoe seemed to reach down and suck in water, which completely de-stabilized everything and caused the boat to flip and dump us into the water.
While our situation was not all that good, I could see that the rapid that had created the problem was more of a riffle and would soon disappear. I noted that we were actually in the middle of a big, calm, and slow-moving pool of water. I also observed a big sandbar to our north where we could get out and reorganize ourselves. Finally, I saw that our backpacks were still closed-up and floating nearby. Things could’ve been worse, but they weren’t.
Since we weren’t on a strict schedule, we grabbed the canoe and our packs and dragged them up onto the beach, and began leisurely reorganizing and drying things out. Everything was repacked and back to normal within about an hour. While Busby stabilized and secured it, I loaded the packs back into the canoe. We had learned some important lessons during the swamping event. And so, on the second loading/packing go-round, we tied things down better, realizing the problems that could potentially develop if one or both packs were to float away. Once ready, we carefully climbed in and took our positions, backpaddled out into the current, and headed on downstream, this time more attentively.
We spent three days floating through the canyon, from Rio Grande Village to the take-out at La Linda. Other than the swamping incident, it was a relaxing and spectacular float. We camped two times along the way, and it appeared that it would be an ideal trip for the type of group that we’d have with us later in the year.
We were pleased with how seamlessly things were working out as we floated out of the canyon and entered the home stretch. But then, I began to think about the various logistics involved with the end of the trip. I started getting light-headed as I realized that there was one particularly essential end-of-trip task that I’d neglected to figure out. We were about to take our canoe out of the river near an incredibly remote bridge and needed to get it and ourselves back home. The process, commonly referred to as the shuttle, happens on virtually every river trip, and I’d completely forgotten about it. If we didn’t come up with some solution, it dawned on me that we were about to be completely stranded.
About an hour before reaching La Linda, we conveniently floated upon a group of two canoes and four people, who mentioned that they were headed to La Linda, just like us. I inquired about their shuttle plans. They responded that they had left a Suburban parked near the crossing and would be taking it back to Rio Grande Village, where they’d left another vehicle. I did the math and realized that there was room for me in the Suburban and that I could, at least theoretically, ride back with them to get my truck. I was concerned about leaving the canoe and backpacks at the bridge while doing the shuttle but figured Busby could stay and guard them while I made the round trip.
And so, after some chit-chat, I asked if they’d give me a ride back to Rio Grande Village, and they agreed. Problem solved, at least for me. We floated on past the savior group after making the plan to meet up on the US side under the La Linda bridge. Within a few minutes, their two canoes disappeared behind us. Busby and I eventually floated down to the bridge, eased over to the shore, and landed.
It’s complicated just why there’s a bridge at that spot. It was built in the early ’60s to provide access between the US and a fluorspar mine across the border. And it did just that. By the time we were there, an actual town of sorts had developed around the mine. There was never much of anything on the US side other than miles of open desert. But a hearty bunch of miners and laborers called the Mexican side home, which created an aura of civilization and development.
The mine was in full operational mode as we dragged our canoe up onto the shore. We knew we didn’t want to leave it out in the open for the whole world to see, but there was no sort of structure or vegetation of any size to hide it behind. So, we just did the best we could and carried it up the bank a hundred feet or so and stuck both it and our backpacks behind a clump of not-so-big bushes. Just as we were finishing up with that, the two boats of our shuttle friends arrived. And so, we headed straight back down to the river’s edge to help them deal with their boats and gear.
The plan for our stuff was for Busby to wait with and guard it while I was gone. There was no consideration on my part regarding what that would entail. When I returned with my Scout, we’d haul it all the rest of the way up to the road and load it. It was mid-afternoon by the time the Suburban was packed, and the five of us were ready to leave. I told Busby that I’d be back in four hours or so, which meant that I’d be back before sunset if all went well. And then, we left.
Things did go well with the shuttle, although it was after dark when I got back to La Linda. The round trip had taken a bit longer than anticipated. As I drove up, there was no apparent sign of Busby. But once I stopped, got out, and yelled for him, he emerged from the thicket he was hiding in. We hauled the boat and packs up to the road, loaded up, and by early evening were turned around and driving toward the small Texas town of Marathon and on our way home. I looked at the fuel gauge and was comforted to note that we had more than enough gas to get to town and fill up, assuming all went as planned.
And that brings up an interesting point. Yes, we did have enough gasoline to get back to a gas station to fill the tank that evening, and thankfully it was still open. After fueling up, continuing the drive, and while Busby slept, I had time to ponder it all. My new memories of spectacular vistas and wild water were mixed-in with thoughts about some of the things that might have happened. Things like our packs floating away when we tumped, not encountering the shuttle people, or the possibility of arriving at a closed Marathon gas station. There were plenty of negative and scary thoughts. But they were all overwhelmingly countered by visions of the various remarkable things we saw and experienced.
Swamping the canoe in the river was a mess, but the water was refreshing. La Linda is a lonely place, but the folks I rode with back into the park were full of good stories. A battle of sorts erupted in my mind. I thought about the unanticipated wind with Coulter, the Aggies getting launched off their sailboat bottom, and Busby hiding in the bushes at La Linda. They were compelling events that were firmly etched in my mind. But I realized they might not have even happened had there been significant planning or had things happened as anticipated.
Ultimately, I concluded that undoubtedly there are specific details in every adventure best solidified before the event begins, especially if there is a time constraint. Most of those are related to logistics and safety, such as airline reservations and first aid kits. But at the same time, I decided that I should avoid the temptation to over-plan, which would remove the unexpected wonder and excitement of it all. Undoubtedly, on the three trips, I learned some of the nuances of canoeing and camping in Big Bend, gained respect for wild country, and continued the process of learning to be the one calling the shots. But my most profound takeaway was that there’s a balance that should be struck between planning and “winging it” for creating the most compelling memories.